US and UK Elections (II)

Exploring elections, part two: Conventions and ephemera


The Conservatives did more than just take to the campaign trail in the 1980 election, and the International Office’s Scott Hamilton attended the Republication and Democratic National Conventions in the summer of 1980 (CRD Box 2111).

Hamilton notes the differences between the conventions, commenting, ‘The Republicans were much better organised … the convention ran in clock-work fashion as a “coronation” for Ronald Reagan … the leadership and the band worked hand in hand to ensure just the right amount of euphoria was worked up amongst the delegates when prime-time television demanded it; a galaxy of stars sang beautifully and the balloons fell at the right times.’

The Democrats, on the other hand ‘never looked organised. The balloons not only didn’t fall in time, they couldn’t even be properly freed from the net … The delegates themselves were evidently of a different nature to those [at the RNC]; there were more women, more blacks, more gays and more minorities of every kind.’ He notes, however, tears and appreciation for Senator Edward Kennedy. This affection for Senator Kennedy and the emotional impact of his appearance can be seen in a button celebrating his speech on August 12 – ‘I was there’.

The demographic make-up of the Republican National Convention was a question that received a good deal of attention at the time. The Republican Party, as evidenced by material contained in the VHL archive, was conscious of the lack of diversity in its ranks and exercised about how best to reach out to a broader swatch of the American electorate. Bill Brock, the Chairman of the Republican National Committee in 1980, stated in his remarks at the convention that ‘We will need the help of all Americans, young and old, black and white, brown and yellow, women and men – Americans who have traditionally supported the Democratic Party’. The VHL archive also contains a transcript from the CBS news coverage where the decision to hold the convention in Detroit is discussed in terms of the Republican Party’s attempt to reach out to voters who might not naturally support them. Jeff Greenfield points out that ‘the Republicans don’t really belong here’, with Bill Moyers describing them as ‘a minority party of middle and upper class folk’. The very decision of where to hold party conventions is itself politicised and part of the message that the party is choosing to convey.

Hamilton writes: ‘The spectacle of an American Convention defies accurate description … Whatever a convention might have meant in earlier political times, in 1980 it was a media event of the first magnitude.’ He concludes, however, that the British have little to learn from the Conventions, which may ‘positively bring the democratic process into disrepute, by spreading greater apathy’. Yet Harvey Thomas, once in charge of production for TV evangelist Billy Graham, clearly appreciated the importance of production. Over the course of his work with Thatcher, he worked with a media-focused team to ensure that her speeches and appearances took on a more orchestrated and ‘branded’ appearance, far more similar to the media style that Thomas wrote about in his report.

Election ephemera

Although we haven’t yet uncovered reports for later elections, the two archival collections contain material for elections up to 2008 (US) and 2010 (UK). Comparing ephemera and its development in the two countries is telling. The Conservative Party Archive is full of printed election literature, some quite good, but it contains very little other pre-2000ish memorabilia, bar some badges and the occasionally fluffy bobble. The US Campaigns Archive, however, contains badges and more going back to the late 19th century; Kaberry wrote in 1956 that ‘every gimmick possible was used for advertising … from an ordinary household measure, ‘Ike measures up well’, down to balloons, caps, badges, slogans and pins’. A notable contemporary example from the VHL archive is a bar of soap for Estes Kefauver’s 1952 campaign where he ran on a platform of ‘Clean[ing] up Crime and Corruption’. US branding and slogans has often been directed even at those who couldn’t vote (for example, toys for children or items for the home before women gained suffrage), emphasising the hearts and minds battle for the whole family. Although in 1956 Kaberry was concerned that ‘British reserve against being decorated may always outweight the desire of our American friends to decorate themselves on the slightest provocation’, it is clear that over the past 10 years the UK has increased its output of additional material, from dolls to beer bottles.


Is there anything we can take on democracy and elections from the two archives as a whole? Perhaps we’ll leave that to our researchers (hint: there are probably a few article or thesis opportunities here!), but there are certainly questions to be posed. Apathy has spread in the UK, as Hamilton feared; voter turnout has been declining overall since 1950 (almost 10% since 1980). The UK system is starting, belatedly, to mirror the US in some ways; in 2010, for instance, the first major televised debate between party leaders took place as a precursor to the general election (for the history of the debate on televised debates, see the Conservative Party Archive blog). The Party Conferences have certainly become more ‘glamourous’, with 'Olympo-tastic' rallies and special guests. Do the ephemera and the branding – the overwhelming urge to announce that you are a part of one movement – increase democratic engagement and participation, or just increase partisanship and tribal politics? We can only imagine that UK leaders and Conservative staff will continue to monitor elections in the US and, indeed, other nations, adapting and altering their techniques to suit changing electorates.

Liz McCarthy, Conservative Party Archive

Jane Rawson, Vere Harmsworth Library

Parliament Week
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